Harassment & hate crime

People with learning disabilities are more vulnerable than others to experiencing bullying, harassment or hate crime. 

According to Mencap, as many as 9 out of 10 people with learning disabilities have been a victim of hate crime and/or harassment. It can happen in public, such as on buses or trains, or some people can be targeted by people who abuse their trust in some way, such as stealing money or coercing them to take part in criminal acts.  This may be because they are seen as being more vulnerable and not having the same support systems other people have in place.

In a study (by the Foundation and Lemos and Crane, see below for more details) which gathered the experiences of people with learning disabilities who had experienced hate crime, the majority of those responsible for such incidents were neighbours or people known in their locality, school children or young people and predatory ‘friends’, family, work mates and support workers. 

The most common forms of hate crime were name calling and teasing; physical attacks and threatening behaviour; stealing money; borrowing money and not giving it back; stealing things from the person’s home; attacking property and getting a person with a learning disability to do something illegal.

Defining bullying, harassment and hate crime

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behaviour, involving the repeatable exertion of power over the victim.  Bullying can constitute making threats, verbal or physical attacks, or malicious acts intended to cause embarrassment. Bullying can have a significant impact on the people who experience it, with the potential to cause depression, anxiety and/or loss of confidence. In very serious situations, it may result in self-harm or suicide. Bullying is often considered to be mostly or solely found amongst children, but can also exist in adulthood; this experience can be just as distressing and damaging.

Harassment is similar to bullying, but is unlawful due to the subject matter being targeted. People being harassed are protected by the Equality Act 2010 when the harassing behaviour is related to one of the following topics:

  • age
  • sex
  • disability
  • gender (including gender reassignment)
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sexual orientation

Hate Crime is any criminal act motivated by a personal characteristic of the victim. These characteristics could include disability, gender-identity, race, religion or faith, and/or sexual orientation.

Using these criteria, anyone being targeted due to their learning disability is by definition being unlawfully harassed, not bullied.  The difference between hate crime and harassment can be vague, and the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. In legal terms, there is no immediate difference, in that they are each unlawful on the grounds of being malicious acts motivated by the criteria mentioned above.  

In general use however, ‘harassment’ usually constitutes acts such as verbal abuse which, while being damaging and unlawful, are separated from the more serious ‘hate crimes’, such as serious physical assaults. This is not to say that harassment is not considered serious, and any instances may be reported and treated as a police matter.